Flying Through Snowy Southern California, Virtually

Microsoft Flight Simulator offers an opportunity to explore unique weather conditions—and the pucker factor—before takeoff.

A Carenado G1000-equipped Cessna 182 Skylane in Microsoft Flight Simulator. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Earlier this month, record snowfalls and cold hit Southern California. I grew up in the Los Angeles valley and have always loved flying in the area on any flight sim. One of my favorite places to visit is Big Bear City Airport (L35), perched at over 6,000 feet msl on top of a ridge near lakes and ski resorts. I decided I’d put real weather to the test to see how good it is, compared to the most recent actual METAR. 

On this particular day the winds were 250 at 8 gusting 17 kts., 4 miles in mist, scattered at 700, broken 1100, broken 1600. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Conditions were lousy—a snowy scene with snow squalls or flurries about. The radar on ForeFlight showed the snow showers in spots west and southwest of the field. Since live weather runs constantly, I wanted to take a look.

I chose the simulator add-on Carenado G1000-equipped Cessna 182 Skylane for my test. The aircraft is a state-of-the-art, brand-new ship that would be great to own. Once it was fired up and ready, with the window defrost on and cabin heat blazing, it was time to see what would happen. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Taking off into the wind was easy, but the climb out featured realistic choppy air and some shear as it interacted over the terrain. Snow squally weather was seen nearby over the ridges, with a frozen lake below. Absolutely beautiful! [Courtesy: Peter James]
Flying westerly along the ridges in some pretty choppy air. [Courtesy: Peter James]

The sim models ridge lift almost perfectly, and thermals work based on sun angle, strength, and time of year.

Heading towards the squalls with some visible window icing already in the left corner. I had the defrost on, but that’s clearly not enough. [Courtesy: Peter James]
The sun peeking in and out - snow showers in the air, the quality of lighting is incredible in the version of Flight Simulator I use, also known as MSFS2020. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Coming back around on a left downwind, with the icing threat increasing, I can see this is going to be a very quick flight around the area. [Courtesy: Peter James]

We’re clearly doing a bit of scud running in the valley, which you don’t want to do in real life in a non-icing aircraft with mountains involved. But if you’ve ever wanted to be a bit foolhardy, this is the place to play.

On left downwind windows icing up a bit more, adding to a pucker factor. The runway is clearly not completely plowed as well, and it looks slippery after all the feet of snow they have gotten in real life. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Making sure those defroster knobs are out, give them a virtual pull with the mouse and mouse button to “drag” them out of the off position works. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Heat and defrosters are verified out and on now. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Honeycomb throttle system. [Courtesy: Peter James]

In order to blow the realism factor way up, I recently got a Honeycomb throttle system, yoke, and pedals. To be hands-on, pulling, and pushing, using real scaled controls has the immersion factor much higher than ever before. 

The realism and ability to handle each airplane with higher fidelity really adds to the theory that flight sims and real life can go hand in hand with proficiency.

Turing base, slowing with a notch of flaps over the snow scenes below. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Lining up on a short final, getting somewhat low, slow, and feeling heavy due to altitude and icing. [Courtesy: Peter James]

Some pretty intense sudden wind shear close in over terrain, and trees and buildings are now simulated. I continue to add power. The shaking, bouncing airspeed and changing throttle are lots of fun. Snow squalls and clouds are to the west and southwest, just as seen on the radar. Wow. Real weather does work.

It turned into a pretty good landing overall—a bit fast and heavy. There are definitely some challenging moments when simulating real weather in winter, including some gusty winds. Once you shut down the airplane, you’ll actually hear the wind gusting all around you. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Two days later, I decided to leave town, flying a Boeing 767-300ER available on the FlightSim Marketplace within the simulator itself. [Courtesy: Peter James]

The “CaptainSim” 767-300 is a light, simplistic systems-wise, version of the iconic airliner. While it is simplistic, it looks fabulous, and I would recommend it for getting from one place to another, but not in a “study level” or nuts and bolts type of detailed simulation. It is similar to default airliners in quality. 

In this photo you can see the live snow cover modeling leaving the Los Angeles area, up over the San Gabriel mountains, climbing up to FL320. The snow has reached the valley floors, as many towns at 1,000 feet or so got accumulation. The snow-cover model is updated when satellite imagery is also downloaded, or will modify if you manually modify the weather pages and deactivate live weather.

The 767-300 featured a full cabin detail which allows walking and exploring. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Sunset en route up to BFI—a few moments as a passenger is pleasing. [Courtesy: Peter James]
[Courtesy: Peter James]
Getting vectored into the SEA-BFI area, some impressive buildups we’re in the way with the setting sun adding to the beauty. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Now with Honeycomb throttle quadrant swapped to a heavy twin jet. [Courtesy: Peter James]
Final approach and first class seating view over the area with western mountains. [Courtesy: Peter James]
The retro TWA 763 looking mighty sharp established on the final to BFI. Just a small peek into the massive worldwide weather system that MSFS2020 models so well.  [Courtesy: Peter James]
To interact with the simulator with the highest level of detail, I absolutely recommend the Honeycomb Flight Simulator Starter Set available at For years, Sporty’s Pilot Shop has been synonymous with providing everything a pilot could want. [Courtesy: Peter James]
The Flight Sim Starter Set costs $599, and is the best quality heavy-duty hardware I’ve ever used, at a price that’s heavily discounted. [Courtesy: Peter James]

You can customize the throttle quadrant for single-engine land, single-engine complex, multiengine land, turbojets, and airliners all right out of the box. It’s one massive step toward realism and proficiency for a reasonable investment price. Thirty years ago, I would have never dreamt of such an amazing amount of realism and fun to be had at our hobby, which is now a serious tool for professional aviators anywhere. 

Peter James
Peter JamesContributor
Peter is an experienced Part 135 business jet pilot with a passion for simulators and how they blend with the real world. Learning to fly at age 12, he supplemented his passion and career goals with the early versions of Microsoft Flight Simulator. With the growing realism of all PC simulators today, he frequently uses them for extra proficiency, and loves to show other pilots how great they are.

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